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Addendum To “Enormous Nutshell”: Competing Selectors

[Previously in sequence: Epistemic Learned Helplessness, Book Review: The Secret Of Our Success, List Of Passages I Highlighted In My Copy Of The Secret Of Our Success, Asymmetric Weapons Gone Bad]

When I wrote Reactionary Philosophy In An Enormous Planet-Sized Nutshell, my attempt to explain reactionary philosophy, many people complained that it missed the key insight. At the time I had an excuse: I didn’t get the key insight. Now I think I might understand it and have the vocabulary to explain, so I want to belatedly add it in.

The whole thing revolves around this rather dubious redefinition:

RIGHT-WING: Policies and systems selected by cultural evolution
LEFT-WING: Policies and systems selected by the marketplace of ideas

The second line is ambiguous: which marketplace of ideas, exactly? Maybe better than “the marketplace of ideas” would be “memetic evolution”. Policies and systems that are so catchy and convincing that lots of people believe in them and want to fight for them.

Under this definition, lots of conventionally right-wing movements get defined as left-wing. For example, Nazism and Trumpism both arose after a charismatic leader convinced the populace to implement them. They won because people liked them more than the alternatives. But “left-wing” is not equivalent to “populist”. An idea that spreads by convincing intellectuals and building an academic consensus around itself is still left-wing, because it relies on convincing people. Even ideas like neoliberalism and technocracy are left-wing ideas, if they sound good to intellectuals and they spread by convincing those intellectuals.

Does this mean that in this model, fascism, communism, and liberalism are all left-wing ideas? Yes. Most democracies can be expected to have mostly (entirely?) left-wing parties, since the whole point of being a party in a democracy is that you have to convince voters of things and win their approval. It’s not impossible to imagine a successful right-wing party in a democracy – it would revolve around preserving tradition, and if respect for tradition was strong enough, it might temporarily win. But it’s not a very stable situation.

What prevents every democracy from instantly becoming maximally left-wing? First, cultural evolution has built itself an immune system in the form of traditions and illegible preferences for certain ideas. Second, cultural evolution is still at work. If incumbents pursue some popular policy that ends up bankrupting their city, or causing crimes rates to increase 1000%, or something like that, they will end up humiliated, and people will probably vote them out of office. Incumbents know this, and so put some self-interested effort into rejecting these policies even if they are very popular and convincing.

(I think in this model, greed / special interests / NIMBYism are all special cases of convincingness. If an idea is in my self-interest, it will be very convincing to me; if I am powerful enough to sabotage the system or force things through it, the idea will have won through its convincingness.)

The reactionaries start with the assumption that some problems are asymmetric in the wrong direction. The correct idea sounds unconvincing; wrong ideas spread like wildfire and naturally win debates. I talked about two examples of this yesterday: Congressional salaries and early 20th century Communism. Most questions probably aren’t like this – “don’t nuke the ocean for no reason” is both convincing-sounding and adaptive. But where they diverge, you want to develop a system capable of implementing the right-wing answer even though there will be intense pressure from activists and the masses to implement the left-wing one.

What would a country capable of doing this look like? It would have to be a place where convincing-sounding ideas were incapable of spreading and taking over. That would mean that the beliefs of the populace would be completely irrelevant to what policies got enacted. So it couldn’t be a democracy. But it also couldn’t be an ordinary dictatorship. Churchill tells us that “dictators ride on tigers from which they dare not dismount” – they have to constantly maintain the support of the army and elites in order to avoid being deposed, and that involves doing things that sound good (at least to the army and elites) and are easy to justify (again, to them). You would need an implausibly strong dictatorship in order to resist the pressure to do whatever is easiest to justify, and so to escape being left-wing.

But even this would not be right-wing. Whatever convincing ideology has won the approval of the populace might also win the approval of the dictator, who would then do it because he wants to. Also, the dictator might be an idiot, or insane, and do bad policy for reasons other than because he is under the spell of some convincing-but-wrong idea.

The reactionaries believe there is no way to guarantee a country works well. But there is a way to guarantee that a collection of countries works well, which is to create a system conducive to cultural evolution. Have a bunch of small countries, each of which is ruled by an absolute dictator. In some of them, the dictator will pursue good policy, people and investment will flow in, and those countries will flourish. In others, the dictator will pursue bad policy, and those countries will either collapse, or do the smart thing and adopt the behavior of flourishing countries.

The argument isn’t that dictators are naturally smarter than the masses. The argument is that the dictators will be a high-variance group. Some of them will probably be stupid. But get enough countries like this, and at least one of them will have a dictator who really is cleverer than the masses. That country will succeed beyond what a left-wing country yoked to the most convincing-sounding idea would be capable of. Then other countries will copy its success or be left behind.

(are we sure dictatorships are higher variance than democracies? I think it makes intuitive sense that a single individual would be higher-variance than the average of a crowd. Also, democracies can be expected to develop activists and journalists who will intensify memetic selection and force convergence on the most memetically fit policy. If the democracies are culturally different, the most memetically fit policy might be different for each. But these cultural differences are themselves products of cultural evolution and could be expected to erode under enough pressure.)

There’s a clear analogy to business. Hundreds of entrepreneurs try to start their own companies. Many are idiots and fail immediately. But one of them is Jeff Bezos and very good at his job. His company makes the right decisions and ends up dominating the entire market. “The best practices spread everywhere” is the desired outcome; cultural evolution has succeeded. Abstracting away potential venture capitalist involvement, none of this requires Jeff Bezos’ business plan to sound convincing to a third party; memetic selection is not involved.

(if business worked like politics, each of those hundreds of e-commerce entrepreneurs would go before a panel of voters and explain why their ideas were the best; whoever sounded most convincing would win. I see no reason to believe Jeff Bezos is especially good at convincing people of things. Honestly, “first we make a mail order bookstore, then we conquer the world” sounds like a pretty dumb business plan.)

Henrich summarizes the political implications of The Secret Of Our Success as:

Humans are bad at intentionally designing effective institutions and organizations, though I’m hoping that as we get deeper insights into human nature and cultural evolution this can improve. Until then, we should take a page from cultural evolution’s playbook and design “variation and selection systems” that will allow alternative institutions or organizational forms to compete. We can dump the losers, keep the winners, and hopefully gain some general insights during the process.

The reactionary model of government is an attempt to cache out Henrich’s “variation and selection system”, and shares its advantages. But what’s the case against it?

First, turning the world into a patchwork of thousands of implausibly strong dictatorships sounds about as hard as starting a global communist revolution or implementing any other fundamental change to the system of the world.

Second, cultural evolution at the international level may not work quickly enough to be at all useful or humane. Plausibly World War II provided one bit of cultural-evolution data (“fascism is worse than liberalism”). The Cold War provided a second bit (“communism is also worse than liberalism”). Both bits are appreciated, but 50 million deaths per bit is a pretty high price. If the world were a patchwork of tiny dictatorships, there would probably be a lot of war and genocide and oppression before we learned anything.

Third, we have to hope that cultural evolution would be selecting for the happiest and most prosperous countries. There’s a case that it would, if everyone has exit rights and can vote with their feet for countries they like better. But there’s also a risk it selects for military might, or that exit rights don’t happen. Dubai, whose position in the United Arab Emirates makes it a lot closer to this model than most places, seems to invest a lot in its citizens’ happiness, but also has an underclass of near-slave laborers without exit rights (their employers tend to seize their passports). Also, a lot of industries have pretty bad conditions for their employees, even though those employees have exit rights to go to different companies. I don’t really understand why this happens, but it sounds like the sort of thing that could happen in a patchwork of small dictatorships too.

Finally, and appropriately for a system that loathes convincingness, the branding is terrible. Using “right” and “left” for the two sides was an bad decision. Absent that decision, I don’t think there’s anything necessarily rightist about it. Certainly it exemplifies leftist virtues like localism and diversity; certainly it gets points for identifying Nazism and Trumpism as bad and proposing a way to stop them. Certainly it should be tempting for communists who have realized they’re not going to get a revolution in western countries any time soon but still want a chance to prove their ideas can work. I think this bad branding decision caused a downstream cascade of awfulness, leading to reaction attracting a lot of very edgy people who liked the idea of being “maximally rightist”. Some of these people later became alt-right or Trump supporters, the media caught on, and the idea ended up discredited for totally contingent reasons.

Also on the subject of bad branding, it was an unforced error to focus on kings. The theory is pointing at something like Singapore, Dubai, or charter cities (but also utopian communes, and monasteries, and…) Medieval kings aren’t just a couple of centuries out of date, they’re also bad examples: most of them had very limited power to go against what nobles wanted. They probably stuck to cultural evolution rather than memetic evolution just because that was how things worked in the Middle Ages before the printing press, but they don’t seem to have had a coherent theory of this.

Despite these flaws, I find myself thinking about this more and more. Cultural evolution may be moving along as lazily as always, but memetic evolution gets faster and faster. Clickbait news sites increase the intensity of selection to tropical-rainforest-like levels. What survives turns out to be conspiracy-laden nationalism and conspiracy-laden socialism. The rise of Trump was really bad, and I don’t think it could have happened just ten or twenty years ago. Some sort of culturally-evolved immune system (“basic decency”) would have prevented it. Now the power of convincing-sounding ideas to spread through and energize the populace has overwhelmed what that kind of immunity can deal with.

We should try to raise the sanity waterline – make true things more convincing than false things. But at the same time, we may also want to try to to understand the role of cultural evolution as a counterweight to memetic evolution, and have ideas for how to increase that role in case of emergency.

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